When We Think We’re Failures

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I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. More than usual.

It dawned on me that something was going off the rails when I realized that the self-help book I’d been listening to on my morning commute had just been playing on a loop. For like months.

So, what was it? What had changed?

It wasn’t my circumstances, for I’d been through much harder times.  I’ve been a writer for enough years to – maybe arrogantly, probably because that’s definitely in my wheelhouse – believe that I had found my sea legs. That I had the ability to weather the storms and understood the ins and outs of this literary life filled with rejection and uncertainty. I knew the rules. Or, at least, I thought I did.

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At my job, we’ve been talking a lot about how people work. Back in 2015, Google conducted over 200+ interviews with their employees in search of the right algorithm for what makes a great team. I know. They asked their employees to grade on a scale of one through five – these five different areas of their worklife. 1. Psychological safety: can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed. 2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time? 3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear. 4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us. and 5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters.

What we noticed when we filled it out, was that if the Meaning of Work column scored a 5 that all the other categories ranged in the 4s and 5s and conversely if the Meaning of Work column was a 1, everything else was shit.

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To put it in the terms that I’d been weighing lately, could it be as simple as, if I found my work meaningful, I was a success. If I found my work meaningless, I was a failure.

So, was my bout with failure more about me losing sight of what was meaningful?   Or was it that failure had come to define a spectrum of things in my life, but the definition of success had narrowed to just one scenario. Super specific. Breathtakingly conditional. And rooted in aspects of a life and a person that I could never be.

I think it’s a combination of both.

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My definition of success was unattainable, but failure was in every corner of my life. Meaning and success had come to be defined as THIS ONE THING – this Magnum Opus, this great work that I clearly felt, I was being held back from doing, so all the work – and the life I was leading – was being labeled meaningless or … a failure.

I watched this TED talk – which means, I wanted to watch one TED talk and instead found myself ten hours later starving, frightened, bleary eyed and still somehow watching TED talks – but it was about how we work. And this man was talking about how they did this study where they had two groups of people. First group. Person walked in, they asked them to build a bionocle (a little lego man) for $3. They informed them that at the end of the study they were going to take apart all the bionocles and put them back in the box. The person built the bionocle. They took it. Gave them another one, but this time said they would be paid $2.70. And on and on they went down by 30 cent increments. Second group. Person walks in, they asked them to build a bionocle for $3. The person builds bionocle. Person hands bioncle back. They ask if they want to make another bionocle, but this time they’ll get paid $2.70. Person agrees, starts to make bionocle – but this time, the entire time the person is making the bionocle their other bionocle is being taken apart in front of their face. They hand back the bionocle and so it goes.

The study showed that the first group made 11 bionocles before tapping out. The second? Just 7. Which tells me, that no matter the money if you think what you’re doing is all for naught – or meaningless – you will stop doing it.

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Because that’s what is at stake here. If we think that we are failures and that what we’re doing is meaningless, we will stop doing it – no matter the money or how much we love it.

If we think that only our one Magnum Opus is meaningful, but not the steady backbreaking work that we do on ourselves and our craft every day then we will tragically never have the skill to be able to create that Magnum Opus that we’ve dreamed of. We have to change those definitions so that success and meaning are everywhere – that copywriter job you had to take actually taught you how to not only work on deadline, but be as succinct as possible. That web series you made that no one saw, taught you how to show not tell and that if you put your mind to it you actually could finish something. That one play you’ve been trying to write with those three friends? May never get finished, but you’ve learned how to collaborate, how to take notes, how to give notes and how to tell a story in a different way.

There is meaning everywhere. There is success everywhere.

We fail only if we abandon the curiosity and wonder is takes to find it.

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